AY21-22 Resources for Inclusive Classroom Training

AY21-22 Resources, Agenda and Scenarios


AY21-22 Objectives

Upon completion of the online module in Canvas (for faculty) or pre-workshop content and CELT-facilitated program, participants will be able to:

  • Recognize how teaching plays an important role in a student’s sense of belonging.
  • Identify strategies to create a student’s sense of belonging in your teaching.
  • Locate student support resources and use/share them with students.

Engaging with the pre-workshop content

CELT uses the flipped learning approach for the Annual Inclusive Classroom Training (AY21-22).

You engage with the pre-workshop content before your CELT-facilitated program, then apply the concepts you discovered during it. This strategy allows us to devote more time to active learning (small group discussions, problem-solving, etc.) to solidify our understanding. (Note: Faculty engage with the pre-workshop content in Canvas).

The units include readings, tasks, and self-reflections for you to work on before CELT facilitated training (face-to-face or online synchronous):

CELT-facilitated program

Pre-workshop content

Unit ① Key components to creating a place of belonging in the classroom

📚 Step 1. Read the following

What is a sense of belonging?

This definition from Carol Goodenow (1993) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017):

Sense of belonging is defined as being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. Students’ sense of belonging has been identified as a potential lever to promote success, engagement, and well-being in college.

Read more in your online learning module or on CELT’s Foster a Sense of Belonging page.

Reflect on Your Sense of Belonging Practices

These practices, for creating a sense of belonging, are part of research-based inclusive teaching principles. By engaging in these practices, you can further explore inclusive teaching through conversation with colleagues, consultation with CELT, or reading relevant scholarship.

To complete this task, download and read the Reflect on Your Sense of Belonging Practices (PDF)

These practices, for creating a sense of belonging, are part of research-based inclusive teaching principles. You can further explore inclusive teaching through conversation with colleagues, consultation with CELT, or reading relevant scholarship by engaging in these practices.

To complete this task, download and read the Reflect on Your Sense of Belonging Practices (PDF).

🧭 Step 2. React to one common challenge

We consider several commonly heard frustrations faculty experience fostering a sense of belonging within their learning environments for this task.

  1. Select one of the four Common Challenges (click on the toggle to view the challenge below) associated with developing a sense of belonging.
  2. Review the clarification and evidence-based suggestions to create an even more inclusive environment.
Watch the Sense of belonging in a large enrollment course video, or read the summary below.

“I teach a very large enrollment introductory course. I feel overwhelmed by the idea of ensuring that I am creating a sense of belonging with all of my students.”

Clarification: Teaching a large enrollment course has many logistical challenges. It is unrealistic to connect with each of your hundreds of students personally; however, there are ways to promote students’ sense of belonging in your specific class and on our campus more generally. Even in large enrollment courses, faculty interactions can help shape a web of academic, social, and institutional-level belonging (Freeman et al., 2007).

Suggestions: In their study of 238 first-year students, Freeman and colleagues (2007) found that instructor characteristics such as warmth and openness, coupled with an organized course design encouraging peer-to-peer interaction, had a profound impact on students’ sense of belonging. (To learn more, visit CELT’s Course Design Institute page.)

According to Freeman, “Students navigate complex educational ecosystems and, in the process, engage in interactions that influence their college experiences, development, and outcomes” (p. 489). Find ways to express your humanity, personality, and sense of humor with students.

  • Tell your students that they belong in your course and at Iowa State University, and you will do all you can to make sure they succeed (McGuire et al., 2015; Strayhorn, 2019). Doing so will help them develop their trust in you, even if they don’t get to know you as students might in a smaller enrollment course.
  • Include Student Resources in your syllabus and promote the ways ISU supports students’ academic success and personal well-being (e.g., Student Wellness, Academic Success Center, Writing and Media Center, the SHOP Food Pantry).
  • Seek ways to collaborate with student affairs staff to promote a holistic sense of belonging with our students. Doing so will have far-reaching benefits for all involved (Kezar & Lester, 2009; Kirby et al., 2019; McGuire et al., 2015; Nesheim et al., 2007).

See the Campus Resources to Support Students page and the Online Learner Support page to explore these student resources.

Watch  The balancing act: Maintain rigor and support students video, or read the summary below.

“In my course, we have a lot of content that needs to be covered. It’s a rigorous curriculum, and students need to be ready for the next course in the sequence. I need to move quickly through the material, even if the students do not fully understand the content.”

Clarification: This situation has likely been true for every course, every department, every faculty, every discipline. There is a lot of knowledge in each discipline (plus, we are creating more all the time!). So much goes into preparing our students to be well-rounded citizens who will face the job market confidently. It can be easy to feel the pressure of getting to a “certain point” in your curriculum, especially if you are teaching in a sequenced course. However, learning is a scaffolded process (Wood et al., 1976) that takes time for synthesis and meaning-making to occur. Supporting students and maintaining rigor are not dichotomous concepts.

Suggestions: During the AY20-21 Inclusive Classroom training, many faculty acknowledged the importance of teaching students, not just content (Hengesteg et al., 2021). When you feel yourself needing to “beat the clock” and move onto new content even when students do not understand, pause to do some vital reflection.

  • What are the learning objectives of the course? What is the most critical content to meets those objectives? How, exactly, do the assignments of the course support the learning objectives?
  • Where does this course fit in with the departmental learning goals/expectations (or industry standards)? What connects directly from those to your course? What does not directly connect with those goals (and is it worth keeping)?
  • What have students told you they need from the course? Have you asked them?
  • What does student success look like in this course?

If you struggle to answer these questions, it may be an indication you need to consider course alignment. Talk with a trusted colleague, and you might also participate in CELT’s Course Design Institute.

Some may argue that taking away content reduces the rigor of the course. Remember that rigor is not synonymous with pace, quantity, or difficulty. In fact, a few synonyms to rigor include thoroughness, consistency, accuracy, care, and precision. These terms suggest that rigor is systematic and intentional, focusing on how well something is done instead of completing a vast amount or achieving the task quickly. It will take time to teach and learn a concept thoroughly and with precision. Faculty who genuinely care for their students’ success will work tenaciously to ensure content is taught in an understandable manner (e.g., record video assignment introduction, share examples of successful projects, organize complex projects into stages with clear deliverables) (Gay, 2010). Therefore, building care – both care for the content and care for the students – into teaching and learning is part of rigor.

During the pandemic, many instructors learned something important: less is more. Focusing on the most important content and eliminating something here and there made the workload easier to manage (for both the student and the instructor). How might a slight change/elimination foster consistency, accuracy, or precision? Here’s another example: when writing a journal article, being concise rather than verbose makes your argument stronger and usually more accessible for your audience to read. What parallel can you make with your course content next semester?

Watch the Refocus your support to overcome student apathy video, or read the summary below.

“I have offered to support my students, but they do not reach out to me until it is too late to have a real impact on their grades in the class. My student office hours are very lonely, and rarely does a student cross my door or my Zoom room!”

Clarification: It can be frustrating when students seek your help late in the semester. It’s a time when there are a lot of demands on your time. Consider this, though: students who struggle may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable asking a professor for help during student office hours or via phone or email. They may have had a prior negative experience going to student office hours or approaching an instructor for help. Finally, they may be new to Iowa State University, the major, or both, and unclear about how to best ask for course support.

Even if you are not receiving an immediate or enthusiastic response, the level of interest and caring you show towards your students can play a central role in supporting student motivation, engagement, and involvement in the academic life of the university (Zumbrunn et al., 2014).

Suggestion: To encourage students to seek out help when they need it, try offering students to meet with you early in the semester. This will make them more comfortable asking for help if and when they need it. Consider making this very brief meeting an assignment worth a few points to encourage participation, and if you have a large enrollment class, you can do these virtual meetings in small groups. Once students have that positive first experience, they are more willing to reach out again.

To make the initial meeting most beneficial, focus on giving students support with the following strategies (McGuire et al., 2015):

  • Inquire about the students’ interests and career areas.
  • Ask their process for completing homework, preparing for class, reading, and studying for exams.
  • Offer study strategies and tools to help them prepare for exams and assignments, available on the Academic Success Center website.
  • Please provide examples of past students who may have been in your class and how they were successful in the course.
  • Reinforce the idea that their performance is not a reflection of their intelligence but on how well they manage their time and prepare for exams and assignments.
  • Please encourage students to reach out to you as soon as they need help.

Watch the Help make it “stick”: Approaches to studying video, or read the summary below.

“Students should already know how to study when they get to Iowa State University, and I do not have a lot of extra time to share study tips and techniques.”

Clarification: As instructors, we can help students gain the skills they can use for a lifetime while fostering their belonging and persistence (Strayhorn, 2019; Hausmann et al., 2007). McGuire et al. (2015) used this metaphor for students learning, “As they make the transition from being passive learners to proactive learners, students gain the ability to monitor, plan, and control their mental processing. In other words, instead of staggering through a maze, using instinct alone to look for cheese, they become aware that they need to plot a course and search systematically for cheese, keeping track of what works and what doesn’t” (p. 16).

Most students use reading and multiple repetitions of something they are trying to memorize as their primary study skills. Unfortunately, these are also among the least productive study skills (Brown et al., 2014). Students might be uninformed about how brains work and how active learning techniques can strengthen their new knowledge. You can introduce students to metacognition practices shown to improve learning and effectively prepare for exams (McGuire et al., 2015).


  • Use and share the research on spaced out and varied practice. Create a schedule of questions or problems that regularly requires students to revisit critical concepts throughout your course. Help them understand that assignments or activities requiring them to remember previously learned knowledge or skills—after some time has passed and some forgetting has occurred—will take more effort. Deliver this as a practice through discussion prompts that ask students to apply content learned in previous modules, or you might include “pop quizzes” in your micro-lectures that require students to respond to questions on prior learning (Brown et al., 2014).
  • Provide typical test questions and practice tests. Share specific test questions in the format students can expect to encounter on your exams. Include them as lecture breaks in your micro-lectures or as sample questions following a reading assignment. Students also benefit from low- or no-stakes practice tests that allow them to monitor their progress. Ask your students to develop their questions based on your modeling and include their best questions into the exam, if possible.
  • Offer study tips announcements. Use the course announcements tool to provide motivational tips every week or two on topics such as how to learn, be organized, manage time, or catch up on missed assignments (Nilson & Goodson, 2018).
  • Record a live annotation or podcast of course readings. Many underprepared students may not have learned the skills necessary to comprehend college-level texts. Early in your class, record a live annotation of a text. As you read, highlight the text, identify the main ideas, and write summaries and questions in the margins. At each point, verbalize or think aloud, explaining what and why you are making the note or writing the question or summary. Providing students with recordings of the text or course readings in which you share your thinking, questions, and connections to course content while reading offers students an effective model for reading complex texts.
  • Please encourage students to manage their time effectively. It is crucial to get enough sleep and remain physically active when learning. Explain that creating a plan for focused learning times and physical activities means being in tune with their minds and bodies and taking breaks when learning (exam preps, project completion, etc.) becomes taxing. Students can create a personal deadline or collective commitment by involving others. Whether shared with their parents, group peers, or friends, outside responsibility is one way to keep their part of the commitment.

Unit ② Getting to know our students and ISU student support resources

Watch Dr. Toyia K. Younger, Senior Vice President for Student Affairs present the Division of Student Affairs: Together We Can Help Our Students Succeed video (3m 22s).

📚 Step 1. Read the following items

“Today’s current college students and those to come, born between 1996 and 2012, represent the most diverse and inclusive generation in United States history. National and international events such as technological advancement, a volatile economy, and social justice movements have profoundly influenced and informed this generation’s attitudes and behaviors.

Additionally, after 2025, there will be fewer prospective high-school graduates, the result of a decline in birthrates during and after the Great Recession of 2008. Frequently referred to as the enrollment cliff, the viability and sustainability of programs, departments, and higher education institutions are threatened, and teaching effectively becomes more critical than ever before. It is vital that faculty, regardless of the institution, acknowledge that the idea of a “typical college student” is changing.

Our universities provide the learning environments, both in and outside of the classroom, where students move from adolescence to adulthood to prepare for the workforce or advanced studies (Selingo, 2018). As such, it is more important than ever before for faculty to concentrate their teaching efforts on evidence-based teaching practice that enhance learning for all students. In other words, faculty must continually reflect on what they think they know about their students.” (Hengesteg et al., 2021, para 5).

This reading offers background on belonging and student support at Iowa State University, highlighting the Division of Student Affairs and Student Assistance (Dean of Students Office).

Student Support Resources at Iowa State University

Iowa State University has a robust number of student support resources. This section will highlight the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Student Assistance in the Dean of Students Office.

Division of Student Affairs

The Division of Student Affairs has four unique and collaborative units, including a central office, Campus Life, the Dean of Students Office, and Student Health and Wellness. Student Affairs offer Cyclones a place to eat, sleep, build community, discover new passions, meet new friends from all over the world, care for themselves and others, engage in the community, and gain lifelong skills; see the Division of Student Affairs website. For a directory of the four units and 30 departments, review the Division of Student Affairs Directory.

Office of Student Assistance

The Office of Student Assistance (Dean of Students Office) assists students experiencing difficulties or complex situations to ensure that each student has the opportunity to achieve their academic and co-curricular goals at Iowa State University. These situations may include, but are not limited to:

  • Academic challenges or concerns
  • Medical emergency or long-term illness
  • Mental health or well-being concerns
  • Off-campus living concerns
  • Unexpected events or challenges

The Student Assistance staff collaborates with several campus departments and community providers to assist students with overcoming challenges to be successful and continue towards graduation.

Exploring this information presents a brief glimpse into your students’ background. Discover more by talking with the academic advisors in your area along with your department and college leadership and our campus partners in the Division of Student Affairs. As Kachani et al. (2020) shared, “Instructors should recognize and value students’ varied identities, experiences, and backgrounds and work to create a space where students are both challenged and heard” (para. 4).

No matter your context, it’s worth spending some time thinking about who the students you teach are at Iowa State University. The Office of Institutional Research collects a wide array of data about the institution’s life and prepares the ISU Fact Book annually. Here are a

To complete this task review a few facts, collected for the Annual Inclusive Classroom Training (AY21-22), about Iowa State University – Student Fast Facts (PDF) (77 words and visualized data).

🧭 Step 2. Locate and share student support resources

For this task, please explore the resources available for our students at ISU. Students’ feelings and emotional responses are essential for their persistence and success. Showing concern for the well-being of students, communicate(s) that all students in the university are supported and have the tools they need to succeed. Review the following resources to identify what is available for our students at Iowa State University:

  1. Explore the Campus Resources to Support Students page.
  2. Locate a resource (by topic) that is new to you.

CELT-facilitated program agenda


  • Overview (Mini-lecture and active learning with a review of Unit ①)
    • What is a sense of belonging?
    • Why is belonging essential?
    • Reflect on belonging practices
  • Student-Centered Scenarios (Small-group work)
  • Seek and Connect

Student Centered Scenarios (Small-group work)

To illustrate various practices, CELT developed five student-centered scenarios based on conversations with campus partners in the Division of Student Affairs and feedback from AY20-21. Because we have limited time together CELT selects the scenario for the university-wide offering. To read the summary, click on a scenario.

Watch Scenario 1 – Getting to know your students video, or read the summary below.

In the most recent survey of graduating students, several undergraduates stated that instructors, staff, and peers regularly mispronounced their names. Additionally, your graduate teaching assistant, Ruchika, shared her discomfort that students in previous laboratory courses she has led also failed to learn her name correctly. Your department strives to fulfill Iowa State University’s Strategic Plan Goal 4, “Continue to enhance and cultivate the ISU Experience where faculty, staff, students, and visitors are safe and feel welcomed, supported, included, and valued by the university and each other.”

You are planning for your first day of class and mentoring Ruchika in the laboratory component. Reviewing the course roster, you and Ruchika realize that you do not know how to pronounce many names correctly. You are nervous because remembering names, regardless of their origin, is something you struggle with routinely.

How does this scenario relate to creating a sense of belonging in the ISU classroom?

To note:

  • ISU students represent the 99 counties of Iowa, all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, DC. A total of 2,585 international students enrolled at Iowa State in the fall of 2020, comprising 8.1% of the total enrollment of 31,198 students.

Reflect on your practice:

  • How is your initial reaction to this scenario framed by your identity and experiences?
  • What factors might contribute to your student’s sense of belonging?
  • What are the benefits of remembering and pronouncing your students’ names correctly?

Watch Scenario 2 – Students are not participating, engaging, contributing, or reading the summary below.

You are teaching a course outside of your primary interest area. Before the semester begins, you post an anonymous getting-to-know-you survey to learn more about your students. The survey reveals that many students in this class are transfer students, with a few senior-standing students. You also know that the majority of the students are first-generation. These demographics are not commonly represented in the courses you teach, so you are excited to engage with the students.

As part of the class activities, students are assigned readings independently, with whole-class discussions. You chose the learning activities based on whole-class interactions, so there are opportunities for the students to engage meaningfully with the content and with one another. Unfortunately, this approach is not working! One or two students monopolize the conversation while the remaining students remain silent, avert their eyes from your gaze, and seem to shrink into their chairs when you call on volunteers. They appear to be uneasy and afraid to respond. It is unclear to you if the students complete the readings before class.

How does this scenario relate to creating a sense of belonging in the classroom?

To note:

  • Transfer students make up almost 20% of ISU’s incoming fall 2020 class. First-generation students from a family where neither parent/guardian attended college account for approximately 21% of ISU’s incoming fall 2020 class. (Many transfer students are also first-generation students).
  • Something you might not realize, at ISU, transfer students have the same access to scholarships as returning students; however, many transfer students decide to attend during the summer, which is several months after the application deadline (April 15) for many ISU scholarships. This timeline means their access to financial assistance is reduced and often increases the likelihood that transfer students may need to rely on loans to cover costs in their first summer or fall semester.
  • More timely, many students have been in online courses for over a year. Face-to-face communication may be a bit unpracticed.

Things to reflect upon:

  • How is your initial reaction to this scenario framed by your identity and experiences? 
  • How might you be more proactive about this situation?
  • What factors might contribute to students’ willingness to participate?

Watch Scenario 3 – Facilitating successful group work, or read the summary below.

You allow students to self-select groups for their semester-long projects in your upper-level course. The three projects total 70% of the final grade. Three weeks into the semester, a student Veteran returning from deployment, Dana, joins the class; you place them into one of the existing groups that had space to accommodate one additional member.

A few days later, Dana sends an email to you indicating they need to move to a different group, stating, “I am completing my work, but no one is communicating with me. They have not answered my emails and avoid me in class. As the sole African American student who is a bit older than the traditional college-age student, this feels very specific to who I am. This class is the last one I need to graduate; I cannot fail because of this group.” 

When you log into the Canvas discussion board, you note that Dana’s team members reply to one another but not to Dana. It is curious to you that the students are treating Dana this way. You have not (that you are aware) had a student Veteran in your course before. You could use some assistance, but where?

How does this scenario relate to creating a sense of belonging?

Some things to know: 

  • According to the ISU Military-Affiliated Student Center, approximately 2,600 students are military-affiliated, including those using GI benefits of spouses or parents. Those who are active duty, reservists, veterans, and guard members are approximately 520. 
  • ISU’s current undergraduate enrollment of Black students is 710, who are part of the 15.5% of total U.S. multicultural enrollment.  

Things to reflect upon:

  • How is your initial reaction to this scenario framed by your identity and/or experiences? 
  • How might you be more proactive in this situation?
  • What factors might contribute to students’ willingness to engage in group work?  

Watch Scenario 4 – A student shares personal struggles impacting their academics, or read the summary below.

At the start of the semester, Riley, a sophomore, actively participates in discussions, in-class activities and is completing all online assignments. Riley is a dedicated student by all accounts, and you remember teaching them in your large enrollment introductory course a year ago.

Around midterms, Riley begins to miss the in-person classes and increasingly misses the assignment deadline. You’ve reached out to Riley twice via email, but no response. Finally, in week 10 or 11, Riley visits during your student (office) hours and seems visibly distressed. You are concerned, so you invite them into your office for a conversation. It appears that Riley was recently crying.  

During your chat, which starts talking about Riley’s poor academic situation, they also reference several challenges they face in their personal life. First, they mention losing family financial support for college. With that loss of support, Riley had to choose whether to get groceries, pay rent, or fill their antidepressant prescription. Riley decided not to refill their medications, and without them, there is little motivation to go to class (or even leave the house), much less do the assignments. You are caught a bit off-guard, unsure what to do next.  You went to a campus training about fostering students’ sense of belonging. At the time, you were a bit skeptical of all the “touchy-feely stuff,” but now you feel like you need to do something to help.

How does this scenario relate to creating a sense of belonging with students?

Some things to know:

  • One out of three ISU students experiences significant mental health concerns with depression, anxiety, and relationship concerns (ISU Student Wellness.
  • 2019 survey of U.S. college students by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found:
    • 17% of respondents reported being homeless
    • 39% of respondents were food-insecure
    • 46% said they faced some level of housing insecurity.
  • Between 40-50% of ISU undergraduate students use the Academic Success Center each year. The staff receives approximately 6,000 requests for each tutoring and supplemental instruction annually.

Things to reflect upon:

  • How is your initial reaction to this scenario framed by your identity and/or experiences?
  • How might you be more proactive in this situation?

Watch Scenario 5 – Most students didn’t do well on an exam, or read the summary below.

Your course is a foundational requirement for majors in the discipline and serves as an essential elective in several other departments. The content provides essential skills and knowledge used later in the curriculum and is necessary for success in the field.  

During the fourth week of the semester, students complete their first test in Canvas. Based on their scores, you observe that most of the students did not do well. Although it is not uncommon for this class, you are a bit surprised because it seems more students failed than ever before.

Before the next class, you receive several emails and student drop-ins to student (office) hours. In short, many of these students state: “I studied all week, and I still failed. I’m clearly not supposed to be in this major. Can we talk about dropping the class?”


How does this scenario relate to creating a sense of belonging in your discipline?

To Note: 

  • A contributing factor to student attrition is poor performance in gateway (foundational, credit-bearing, lower-division) courses. A strong correlation exists between gateway course retention and a student’s successful degree completion. Courses with high rates of unsuccessful outcomes: D’s, F’s, withdrawals, and incompletes (DFWI), can substantially devastate a student’s grade point average, motivation, and academic progress (Koch & Pistilli, 2015).

Things to reflect upon:

  • How is your initial reaction to this scenario framed by your identity and experiences? 
  • How might you be more proactive in this situation?
  • What factors might contribute to students engaging in the learning process?


Koch, D. & Pistilli, M. (2015). Analytics and gateway courses: Understanding and overcoming roadblocks to college completion. https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/files/Analytics%20and%20Gateway%20Courses%20PPt.pdf

Seek and Connect

Seek and connect students to resources you explored in Unit 2 in the learning module, including:

And as a reminder, always keep safety in mind. If you feel that you or other students are in danger, call ISU Police at 911 or 515-294-4428.

Use Formative Student Feedback (Plus Delta)

Last year’s training highlighted the plus-delta model (see CELT’s Use formative course feedback from students page). We heard that in the evaluation that this was one of the most valuable strategies. Sending out an anonymous survey or a paper-based one; then, after receiving the feedback, you summarize the results and share them with the class.

The process sends a powerful message to students that they have responsibility for their learning. But you are also sending the message that you as an instructor have a growth mindset and can (and are willing to) learn from feedback and incorporate changes.

You are welcome to modify this to align with new teaching activities or approaches, such as engagement, group work, etc.

Extend your learning

Last year’s training (AY20-21) highlighted the plus-delta model (see CELT’s Use formative course feedback from students page). We heard that in the evaluation that this was one of the most valuable strategies. Sending out an anonymous survey or a paper-based one; then, after receiving the feedback, you summarize the results and share them with the class.

The process sends a powerful message to students that they have responsibility for their learning. But you are also sending the message that you as an instructor have a growth mindset and can (and are willing to) learn from feedback and incorporate changes.

You are welcome to modify this to align with new teaching activities or approaches, such as engagement, group work, etc.

Continue the Student-Centered Scenarios Discussion

Following the program, extend your learning with the optional readings, resources and references.

Optional: Extend your learning with resources and references

(A condensed version of M.T. Owens and K.D. Tanner’s article Teaching as Brain Changing: Exploring Connections between Neuroscience and Innovative Teaching distributed by The American Society for Cell Biology under the BY-NC-SA 3.0.)

How do you conceptualize learning? Do you think of learning as a contractual agreement: the instructor performs specific actions to facilitate learning, and the student, in turn, behaves in ways to receive that learning? Or do you think of learning in sociological terms: the learner, through what they know, transforms their beliefs and becomes a more knowledgeable citizen of the world? Or perhaps you think of learning in psychological terms: learners are motivated, store facts in their minds, and create mental knowledge structures. These ways of conceptualizing learning can be beneficial in understanding how stu­dents learn and what makes teaching effective.

At their most fundamental and mechanistic level, teaching and learning are neurological phenomena arising from physical changes in brain cells. Recent advances in brain science have given us an in-depth picture of the molecular and cellular changes that occur during learning, and the consensus of neurobiologists is that these alterations are both necessary and sufficient for the forma­tion of memories (Takeuchi et al., 2014).

Each of our students arrives in class with a human brain, which on average has 86 billion neurons arranged in hundreds of brain regions, each with different functions (Azevedo et al., 2009). These neurons connect with one another to form neural circuits, making an esti­mated 100 trillion contacts with one another, called synapses (Williams and Herrup, 1988).

While the basic architecture of the human brain is set up early in childhood, learning and memory are possible because individ­ual neurons retain the ability to change their signaling and syn­aptic connections throughout a person’s life. Learning appears to occur primarily because of changes in the strength and number of the connections between existing neurons, a process called synaptic plasticity. For the most part, the changes occur in such a way that frequently used connections between neurons are enhanced the most, a concept pithily summarized by neuroscientist Carla Shatz as “Neurons that fire together, wire together” (Shatz, 1992). 

Although nearly all neural connections can exhibit plasticity, multiple factors can either pro­mote or inhibit neural change. We all know that it is easier to learn something if we are paying attention and motivated by the material. Scientists have iden­tified a set of neurotransmitters that are commonly released in contexts involving motivation and attention. Broadly speak­ing, the neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with reward or the anticipation of reward, while the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) is released during situations of novelty or surprise (Everitt and Robbins, 1997; Schultz and Dickinson, 2000). Neuroscientists would predict that when our students are motivated and attentive in our class, their brains release dopamine and ACh, priming them for plasticity and learning.

On the flip side, other factors can inhibit plas­ticity. Recent research, published in Nature Neuroscience, suggests that social disconnection may be processed in the brain in the same way as the threat of physical harm. For example, when a person perceives that their relationship with another person is under threat, the brain responds by activating a basic ‘alarm system.’ This alarm system sets in motion a range of neurophysiological processes that are the same, whether the threat is physical/environmental or perceived based on individual judgment of a threat to social connectedness.

Further, everyone has felt how a stressful or scary event causes heart rates and blood pressures to rise. It turns out that some of the same chemicals that are involved in the body’s response to fear and stress also pass into the brain and can profoundly affect processes there. One chemical, in particular, the stress hormone cortisol, seems to be particularly pertinent to plasticity and learning. The brain is rich in receptors for cortisol, espe­cially in areas relevant to memory (de Kloet et al., 1999). While mild elevations in cortisol can boost performance on memory tests, high levels inhibit both the encoding and the retrieval of memory in both animals and humans (Lupien and McEwen, 1997; de Kloet et al., 1999). The adverse effects of high levels of stress and cortisol on memory compound over time. Many different studies using all sorts of stressors have found that chronic stress can impair learning and memory and is even associated with the shrinkage of specific brain structures in humans (Conrad, 2010). Fortunately, those same studies have shown that this shrinkage is reversible. Based on these studies, neuroscientists would likely predict that high levels of stress in students in classrooms would be an impediment to learning, and removing some stressors could facilitate it.

What can we do as instructors to increase learning and memory while decreasing those factors that inhibit plasticity?

  • Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press.
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